Ontario government considering extending winter break for schools

·4 min read

TORONTO — Ontario students could get an extended winter break or start classes remotely in the new year as the province considers ways to reduce COVID-19 transmission after the holidays, the education minister said Tuesday while stressing the ultimate goal is to keep schools open during the second wave of the pandemic.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said he's talking to health officials and "looking at solutions that may include some period out of class" at the beginning of January, but has not yet made a decision.

"We're looking at any option" to make sure kids can return to in-person learning safely, he said.

"We are thinking ahead to be able to mitigate any increase of transmission in our schools because we've fundamentally, in this province, been able to keep that rate down."

Lecce said he will announce a plan in the next week or two to allow parents to prepare.

Last Friday, a spokeswoman for the minister said the province was not considering any change to the school-year calendar.

That's after the Council of Ontario Directors of Education said it had proposed starting the new semester with virtual schooling to allow students and staff to self-isolate after any potential holiday celebrations.

Lecce suggested Tuesday that the latest provincial projections on COVID-19, which were released last Thursday, played a role in his decision to look into a possible short-term return to remote learning. 

Those projections showed the province is on track to see up to 6,500 new daily COVID-19 cases by mid-December unless new public health measures are enacted.

An extended school break is also on the table in Quebec, with provincial authorities noting last week that close to 1,200 classrooms across the province were closed, including more than 300 added to the list over two days.

Dr. Howard Njoo, the national deputy medical officer of health, said Tuesday that school opening and closing decisions are best left to local authorities. But he said the data from provinces and territories is showing only a small number of “smaller school outbreaks,” and he thinks it’s important for schools to stay open as much as possible.

“Certainly we haven’t seen to date large-scale school outbreaks, which is ongoing, continuing transmission that also spills out to a great extent in the larger community,” Njoo said.

Schools were reopened in part because of the role they play in supporting children's social and mental well-being, he said.

“I would say that there are lots of other things that I would probably look at first, in terms of what we could do in various types of restrictions or limitations of activities," Njoo said, adding closing schools would be "very, very low on the list."

The Ontario government also vowed Tuesday to provide guidance soon on upcoming winter holiday celebrations, after Ontario's top public health doctor said a day earlier he hopes all of the province will be in the lowest, or green, category for COVID-19 restrictions by then.

“We can get these numbers down as we did before, and bring them down to level — so you move from the red to the orange, yellow and I would like to think everybody would be in green, especially for the time of Christmas,” Dr. David Williams said Monday.

Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday, however, that he would be "very cautious" about planning any Christmas or other celebrations, while Health Minister Christine Elliott said it would be "very optimistic" to expect that much of an improvement in time for the holidays.

"Of course we are very hopeful that all of Ontario will be in a green situation before the holidays, but I don't think it's something that we can count on at this point," Elliott said.

Ontario reported 1,249 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, and 12 new deaths due to the virus. Elliott said 569 cases were in Toronto, 256 in Peel Region and 94 in York Region.

The province also reported 133 new COVID-19 cases related to schools, including at least 73 among students. Those bring the number of schools with a reported case to 670 out of Ontario's 4,828 publicly funded schools.

In the province's long-term care homes, 700 residents currently have COVID-19 and three new deaths have been reported today. The province says 108 of its 626 long-term care homes are experiencing an outbreak.

— with files from Mia Rabson in Ottawa

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2020. 

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press